Fantastic discoveries — past and present — can alter our conception of the Universe and how we view our place in it. In the 1920s, Edwin Hubble used the Period-Luminosity Relation, photographs, and the most powerful telescope in the world to demonstrate the existence of other galaxies, an idea that had been debated for centuries. In February 1930, Clyde Tombaugh discovered Pluto, an event widely covered in the popular press.
The existence of other galaxies! The discovery of a new planet! Two months before the Adler Planetarium opened on May 12, 1930, popular interest in astronomy had soared. The Planetarium theater itself highlighted technological innovation; its Zeiss projector was the first that could accurately project northern and southern stars onto the inner surface of a dome. Max Adler donated the funds to build America’s first planetarium. In his dedication address, Adler explained his motivations:
"The popular conception of the Universe is too meager; the Planets and the stars are too far removed from general knowledge. In our reflections, we dwell too little upon the concept that the world and all human endeavor within it are governed by established order and too infrequently upon the truth that under the heavens everything is inter-related, even as each of us to the other."
Max Adler was not an astronomer, but by understanding astronomy’s inspirational qualities, his comments connected the past, present, and future.
Adler’s planetarium building, too, reflects this moment in time. Architect Ernest Grunsfeld, Jr.’s solid rainbow granite structure, topped with a copper dome, incorporates many Art Deco elements – symmetry, sleek lines, geometrical shapes, use of metals – that looked forward to the modern world while also looking to the past for reassurance. Alphonso Iannelli’s relief sculptures are the Adler’s most prominent decorative features. In the lobby, the dedication plaque depicts the gods and goddesses after which the eight planets were named (see Figure 1). Completed before Pluto was discovered, the aluminum plaque is now accurate once again. Around the exterior of the original building, Iannelli’s twelve bronze plaques represent the zodiacal constellations, using modern representations of mythological figures (see Figure 2).
For many of us, astronomy still inspires in the same way it did Max Adler, Ernest Grunsfeld, Jr, and Alphonso Iannelli. Discoveries about the Universe are — all at once — about the excitement of discovery, the pursuit of knowledge, and the progress of science, bringing wonder, inspiring art, and causing us to reflect our unique place here on Earth. Adler visitors are invited to the planetarium to learn, wonder, and find inspiration.
Written by Jodi Lacy, Archivist and Digital Projects Manager at the Adler Planetarium.